I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
The last verse of Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, has a particular resonance during these dark and uncertain times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The poem, which was also the name of a BBC documentary series by Adam Curtis, speaks of a time when we can return to nature and that mammals and computers will live together in “mutually programming harmony” with machines taking care of all our needs.
Things haven’t quite turned out like that have they?
In some kind of warped way maybe our machines are taking care of our needs but are they things we really need taken care of? If by “meeting our needs” we mean machines whose algorithms predict and dictate our shopping choices (Amazon), influence our voting behaviour (Facebook), satisfy our sexual preferences (Tinder, Grindr) or find us cheap rides and accommodation (Uber and Airbnb) then yes, maybe we have reached a mutually programmed harmony. I’m not sure that is exactly what Brautigan had in mind though.
If we think the “machines of loving grace” part of the poem have not quite happened in the way Brautigan predicted it could be that the “all watched over” part is about to become only too true however.
China, where the current coronavirus variant, SARS-CoV-2 originated, was already building the worlds largest social credit system whereby all citizens are given points from which the authorities make deductions for bad behaviour like traffic violations, and add points for good behaviour such as donating to charity. The full system is being rolled out during this decade at which point all citizens will be forced into using the system and everything from credit worthiness to political allegiance will be ‘measured’, not just by the system but by your peers as well. If trust is broken in one place restrictions will be imposed elsewhere meaning the untrustworthy will have reduced access to everything from jobs, to foreign travel, to bank loans and the internet.
Now, as a way of tracking peoples freedom of movement as its citizens come out of the coronavirus lockdown, the government has, through the ubiquitous Alipay and WeChat platforms, developed a “health code” service. This assigns users a colour-coded status based on their health and travel history plus a QR code that can be scanned by authorities. If you have a green code you are allowed to travel relatively freely. A yellow code indicates that the holder should be in home isolation, and a red code says the user is a confirmed COVID-19 patient and should be in quarantine. In China, which is not exactly known for its liberal attitude toward privacy, this may be acceptable as the price to pay for relative freedom of movement however as talk of such apps being rolled out in western liberal democracies start to become news, its citizens may not be quite as accepting of such uses of private data.
A similar system in South Korea that sends emergency virus text alerts has already revealed some embarrassing revelations about infected people’s private lives. These include a text saying “A woman in her 60s has just tested positive. Click on the link for the places she visited before she was hospitalised.” For many people the texts, whilst intended to be helpful, are creating a climate of concern by revealing a little too much personal information including revelations about extra-marital affairs.
At a country level there are already plentiful supplies of open data that allow apps such as this one to track COVID-19 statistics by country. The fact that we have systems and organisations that publish such data is to be applauded and should be seen as a good thing in providing us all (if we can be bothered to look) with plentiful amounts of data to help us come to our own conclusions and combat the unfortunately equally plentiful supply of fake news that abounds on social media about COVID-19. However once such data starts to get more personal that becomes a different matter.
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Ministers chief advisor, hosted a meeting at Downing Street on 11 March with technology company leaders to see how they could help develop an app to tackle COVID-19 and on Easter Sunday the UK government confirmed plans for an app that will warn users if they have recently been in close proximity to someone suspected to be infected with the coronavirus. Meanwhile Apple and Google have announced a system for tracking the spread of the new coronavirus, allowing users to share data through Bluetooth technology.
Four questions immediately arise from this situation?
- Should we trust corporations (especially Apple and Google) to be handling location data identifying where we have travelled and who we might have been close to?
- Can we trust the government to handle this data sensitively and with due regard to our privacy?
- What happens if not enough people use these apps?
- Once the pandemic is over can we trust the government and corporations to disable these functions from our phones and our lives?
Let’s take these one at a time.
First, are Google and Apple to be trusted with our private data? Historically neither exactly have a clean slate when it comes to protecting private data. In 2014 third-party software was used to steal intimate photos of celebrities from Apple’s cloud service iCloud, forcing the company to expand it’s two-step authentication service. More recently Hacker News revealed that Apple suffered a possible privacy breach in 2018 due to a bug in its platform that might have exposed iCloud data to other users.
Google’s failed social networking site Google+, which had already suffered a massive data breach in 2018 that exposed the private data of more than 500,000 Google+ users to third-party developers, was shut down earlier than planned in April 2019 following the discovery by Google engineers of another critical security vulnerability.
Despite the breaches of security suffered by these companies it is probably true to say that they have a deeper understanding of their platforms than most companies and government agencies. Putting something temporary in place during this potentially existential threat to society is probably not a bad thing however what happens once the pandemic is over then becomes critical.
Can we trust governments to behave properly with how they handle this data? Again governments do not have a good track records here. Edward Snowden, in his memoir Permanent Record, reveals the extent of the mass surveillance that was taking place on US citizens by the National Security Agency from 2010 and beyond. If even democratically elected governments do this what chance for the dictatorial regimes of Russia and China? Even during these unprecedented times we should not be too hasty to give away the freedoms that we enjoy today without knowing the extent to which our data could be compromised. As John Naughton explains here there are ways of doing non-intrusive tracking of COVID-19 but to do so our smartphones have to be a bit, well, smarter. This is also a good reason why here in the UK, parliament should be recalled, even in virtual form, to ensure decisions being made in this area are challenged and subject to proper scrutiny.
Next, what happens if not enough people use the apps, either because they don’t trust the government or because not everyone has smartphones or they simply can’t be bothered to install the app and make sure it is active? It is estimated that in order for this to work there must be at least a 60% take up of the app. Can governments somehow enforce its usage and penalise users in someway if they don’t? Maybe they rule that only those who have smartphones with this app installed and active are the ones who will be allowed freedom of movement both to work, socialise and meet with other family members. Whilst this may encourage some to install the app it would alsonput a huge burden on police, the authorities and maybe even your employer as well as shops, bars and restaurants to ensure people moving around or entering their buildings have apps installed. Also, what about people who don’t have smartphones? Smartphone ownership here in the UK varies massively by age. In 2019, 96% of 25-34 year olds owned smartphones whereas as only 55% of 55-64 year olds owned these devices and only 16% (figures only available for 2015) of people over 65 owned them. How would they be catered for?
Finally, what happens when the pandemic is over and we return to relative normality? Will these emergency measures be rolled back or will the surveillance state have irrevocably crept one step closer? Recent history (think 9/11) does not provide much comfort here. As Edward Snowden says about the US:
“The two decades since 9/11 have been a litany of American destruction by way of American self-destruction, with the promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts, and secret wars, whose traumatising impact – whose very existence – the US government has repeatedly classified, denied, disclaimed, and distorted.”
Will our governments not claim there will always be a zoonotic-virus threat and that the war against such viruses, just like the “war on terror” will therefore be never ending and that we must never drop our guard (for which read, we must keep everyone under constant surveillance)?
An open letter published by a group of “responsible technologists” calls upon the NHSX leadership and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ensure new technologies used in the suppression of Coronavirus follow ethical best practice and that if corners are cut, the public’s trust in the NHS will be undermined. The writer Yuval Noah Harari, who is quoted in the open letter by the data campaigners, warns that such measures have a nasty habit of becoming permanent. But he also says this: “When people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health.”
Once the surveillance genie has been let out of its bottle it will be very difficult to squish it back in again allowing us to return to times of relative freedom. If we are not careful those machines which are watching over us may not be ones of loving grace but rather ones of mass surveillance and constant monitoring of our movements that make us all a little less free and a little less human.